Parental Pressure to Be a Doctor – Did This Happen To You?

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I was lucky. I had parents who never tried to push me into a specific career direction. They held pretty loose reins and let my brothers and I chart our own futures. We became a physicist, an engineer, and a physician. When I announced I was going to be an Art History Major, I’m sure my mom and dad bit their tongues and scratched their heads. But they let me make my own decisions and my own mistakes. After a year of studying Italian Baroque painters, I was scratching my head too.

I know a lot of you have not been so fortunate. I hear your stories. One physician told me his mother recounts how she would push him around in his stroller, proclaiming to strangers, “This is my son and he is going to be a doctor.” He tried his best to live up to her expectations, but when he was in medical school, he called his mother up to tell her this decision was a mistake. She wouldn’t accept it and made it clear how devastated she would be if he quit. To help himself make it through, he used to imagine his medical school was made of glass. Pretending that he could see through the walls made him feel less trapped. Decades later, this physician is dealing with a deep sense of regret for having followed a path that was not his own.

He was able to make it through (for better or worse) but for some, the body and mind can revolt. One young physician, who had been “directed” into medicine by family pressures, began experiencing depression in medical school, which continued into residency and was compounded by chronic fatigue-like symptoms. Being unable to perform to expectations, despite having been a top-notch student, she left residency.

Over a period of time, her depression and symptoms resolved, yet if she took steps to return to residency, the symptoms abruptly recurred. She is trying to figure out the right career path for herself, but the challenge is compounded by external pressure. She shared with me, “Now my entire family (including extended family) is in a united front to convince me to continue in medicine, as long as it is a specialty acceptable to them. Overall, there was and is a lot of controlling in my family as it relates to my career… Parents really should give kids the opportunity to explore careers and decide for themselves!! At the end of the day, I have to learn to trust myself, right?”

Right! I wholeheartedly agree.

I do believe most parents genuinely want their children to be happy and successful. Many work very hard and make significant sacrifices so their children can have the best chance for a fulfilling life. However, when these good intentions are muddied with parental attachment to a fixed idea of what their son or daughter should do or be, there is no longer a clear space for direction to come from within. I’d be rich if I had a nickel for every time someone told me that growing up they heard, “You are going to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.”

Medicine can be a great career but it’s challenging and places a lot of responsibility on the individual. There are considerable sacrifices – the years of studying and training, countless sleepless nights on call, the challenge of balancing work and family, the long hours, giving up outside interests, etc. The decision should really be one’s own. When we become doctors, we are the ones who are responsible for our patients. When there is a bad outcome, it’s our responsibility. When a patient dies, it’s on our heart. If we are sued, we are the ones in court. The joys are ours too, but they come with a price, and we need to have consented freely to that cost.

When my Uncle Tom was dying from lung cancer, he asked me to take him to a talk on the difference between love and attachment. The speaker held out a clenched fist to illustrate the concept of attachment. He explained that when we are coming from attachment, we hold tight and cling to what we want – whether it is a person, an idea or an outcome. Attachment stems from fear of loss and makes us resistant to other perspectives. He then opened his hand and stretched out his fingers so his palm was facing up. “This is love,” he said. He explained that love comes from trust and gives space to others. Love is not invested in having things be a certain way, but desires for truth to be revealed, even if it is painful.

In order for each of us to find the truth of who we are, we need the chance to figure out our own calling and purpose. It is one of the big mysteries and joys of life.

When I think of people such as Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Taylor, Georgia O’Keefe, Ben Franklin, and Ghandi, it’s hard for me to imagine them being anything other than who they were. What if they had all been told to be doctors? It’s hard to even conceive of this. What they did was so much a part of who they were. Whether we become famous or not, whether we have a “do-or-die” calling or not, we should still have the chance to find out who we were created to be.

No one else should be selecting our destiny for us. I doubt there are very few individuals who climbed Mount Everest because their parents wanted them to. Becoming a physician is akin to climbing a kind of medical Mount Everest. The choice should be yours. Everest needs to be calling you.

The physician stories were used by permission.

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